According to their website, Strawberry Fields Festival is 'widely regarded as one of the fastest growing and most exciting independant festivals in the UK.' The spelling mistake within that quote is as it is on the web. I highlight it, not simply because I'm a pedant (I am) but because, for me, it is this lack of focus on attention to detail that characterises Strawberry Fields and stops it from hitting the fruity heights that other festivals, such a Y Not, Beacons and Beat Herder have achieved this summer.
This year was surely a chance for Strawberry Fields to raise their game. With Leicestershire's other main indie festival, Summer Sundae, not going ahead, this could have been the opportunity to capture and captivate their audience. But instead the festival bookers play it safe. Headliners of Jaguar Skills (who played the main stage last year), The Enemy and The View are going to do little to excite the North West Leicestershire massive. Quality acts programmed by local venues, such as the world renowned reggae/ska act, The Pressure Tenants, don't even make the poster.
Our reviewer last year made frequent reference to the quietness of the site. I'm afraid to say that this year felt even quieter. If you don't like queueing at bars or for food at festivals then this could be for you. If you want to get up close and personal with your favourite band then this could definitely be for you. Rarely did I see a queue more than two deep at the main stage. Yes, people were watching from picnic rugs but this town was almost a ghost town for much of the time that I was wandering.
And yet a walk around the campsite suggests that the arena space should be busier. The camping area buzzes with people for much of the weekend. Sixth formers and their younger friends sit around tents in stolen camping chairs, laughing and drinking from cans of cheap supermarket cider. Security guards patrol the entrance with a menacing glare for anybody who dares bring their alcohol into the arena. I know that rules is rules but surely it would be better for all concerned if this weekend wasn't simply a coming of age camping trip and some of the music on show gained an audience.
One tent did seem able to buck the trend. I'm not simply saying this because I was lucky enough to compere on it for two days of the festival. The Strawberry Jam tent played host to local, Leicester acts. Local venues, Lock 42, The Musician and The Donkey took it in turns to programme each day and, though some bands drew crowds smaller than the number of thumbs on a hand, most played to a packed and rapturous audience. Siobhan Mazzei did her rising profile no harm at all on the Saturday afternoon as she put in a confident and yet self-effacing acoustic singer songwriter thing. At times she peaked out with power chord and rock yell, at other times it's a plucking and tapping folk yelp but the packed tent knows it's seen quality.
The same is true of The Simpletones on that afternoon. Four guys doing Barbershop with humour and style. Everyone marvels at the close harmonies and the clever arrangements. They launch into a new tune for them, a cover of Bastille's Pompeii, and it's like The Flying Pickets never happened. By the time that their set closes with their Africa Medley, the crowd are on their feet and the four singers are conducting them in rock poses from the press pit. Jubilant.
The Brandy Thieves headline a busy Strawberry Jam tent on the Saturday night and give the festival a party feel. Coming across like the missing link between Gogol Bordello and Fairground Attraction, they excite and enthral with their stunning performance. Flags from various countries are waved in the audience as this raggle-taggle folk, ska and rock act take us on a journey through their influences. Going somewhere.
My opening gambits about Strawberry Fields might seem harsh and in truth I can't entirely put my finger on why this festival doesn't entirely work. I know it's not through lack of effort from the organisers and there are facilities that put some larger festivals to shame. There's a couple of bars, a real ale tent (quiet for most of the weekend until DJ's play in the evening), a big top stage, an outdoor dance area (The Boat That Rocked). There's even a poetry tent, hot-tubs, a vintage clothing stall (with a small acoustic music stage), dressing-up themes and Strawberry Field's very own stone circle. Food provision is also decent. Excellent toasties from local provider The Jabberwocky, food and entertainment from the drag-based Camp Cooks, a friendly scampi and chips stall and a new business set up to sell alcoholic ice-cream provide the highlights.
But you can't escape the thought that this has all been thrown together; that festival organisers have looked at what has worked at other festivals and thrown it all together in one big hotch-potch melting pot in the hope that it'll work for Strawberry Fields. And some of that attention to detail is missing. There's just a dozen people dancing at the Boat That Rocked but the sound bleed from that outdoor space means that the acoustic acts playing in the Strawberry Jam tent can't hear themselves think. Nobody sits at the Stone Circle because it overlooks a kids area where hula hoops are spun. The Big Top has a sound system perfectly adequate for DJ's but the live bands playing in there throughout the days struggle like hell to make the impact they should and could. The hot-tubs, much lauded on the website, in reality look like children's paddling pools.
After a triumphant set last year, The Cuban Brothers return to play the main stage again as the Sunday sub-headliner. The audience know what they're going to get with the Cuban Brothers. Those that have never seen them before are there with friends who either saw them last year or at larger festivals. I don't think this band ever disappoint. They draw one of the largest main-stage crowds that there's been all weekend and charmingly proceed to entertain all with their high energy, all-singing, all-dancing routines. Many of us have heard the jokes before but still laugh at the complete wrongness of it all. A highlight.
In truth, much of the music on the main-stage this Sunday has been of top quality. It's just a shame that there's hardly been an audience to interact with it. Mahalia does a confident pop-soul thing that demonstrates just how fine her voice is; Preacher And The Bear are an enthusiastic art-blues band who create a talking point of the day when frontman Tom climbs up the rigging and dangles from it like a monkey; Troy Ellis and his all-star Jamaica Reggae band should be playing to a much larger audience than this; It's great to get to see ThePeteBox close up and to really appreciate the ease and stunning skill with which he creates his loops to form covers we all know.
Over in the Donkey-programmed Strawberry Jam Tent on the Sunday, each act oozes with headline class and so alternating between this stage and the main stage becomes the order of the day. The Kirkland Turn, Demons of Ruby Mae, The Junipers and The David Wyatt Band all impress considerably early on with the quality of musicianship shining through. Later in the day, The Marianuccis (with members of Black Carrot and Crazyhead) do their Scaley Fuego, intense Krautrock thing and Arthur Rigby and the Baskervylles charm all with their orchestral Divine-Comedy like folk-pop. Punters can't believe their luck when they stumble upon headline set, The Pressure Tenants in here. These 'godsons of ska' stonk through a set of the utmost quality. The Strawberry Jam tent is jammin'. Apparently, all of the acts that have played on this tent over the weekend have impressively done so for free.
I'd caught a bit of Mistajam's set at Beat-Herder and had been quite impressed by the way that this DJ had held the crowd in his hands. Bands have mostly disappointed in the Big Top this weekend but Mistajam, not shy of telling us about his growing stature on Radio One, doesn't need to worry. Mosh pits form and sweat is exchanged as he motors through his set. The youngsters appear to have left their camp site for this one and we see a glimpse of how the festival could be if people really got involved.
The Beatles song 'Strawberry Fields Forever' had a working title of 'It's Not Too Bad'. That's actually not a bad way to sum up Strawberry Fields-The Festival. There's much to appreciate here but as yet it's not quite clicking on all cylinders. In years to come, this has the potential to thrive and to become a big player on the festival circuit but as for now.... 'it's not too bad.'
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